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Chloe Effron

25 Larger-Than-Life Facts About Texas

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Chloe Effron

The Lone Star State boasts some the best barbeque and biggest farmlands and ranches in the United States. Since the 19th century, it has been home to presidents, movie stars, musicians, folk heroes, and famed outlaws. Here are 25 facts from deep in the heart of Texas. 

1. Texas is the second largest state [PDF]. With an area of 268,602 square miles, it's bordered by four other states, and by Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico in the South. Alaska, meanwhile, is the largest, at 663,000 square miles.

2. The word “Texas” comes from teysha, which means “friends” or “allies” in the language of the natives of East Texas. The word was used by several tribes, including the Hasinais and Caddo, before the arrival of the Spanish, and was sometimes used as a greeting. 

3. The so-called Lone Star State gets its nickname from the state flag. The lone star first appeared on the Republic of Texas’s flag in 1838. 

istock

4. The state capital was almost named Waterloo. When a commission surveyed the land in 1838, they named the territory after the famed battle. But the Republic of Texas’s congress ended up renaming the city Austin to honor founding father Stephen F. Austin. 

5. 7-Eleven got its start in Dallas in 1927 when a Southland Ice Company employee started selling eggs, milk, and bread out of one of Dallas’s ice houses. Southland founding director Joe C. Thompson Sr. saw the potential in the idea, and the chain of ice houses quickly morphed into a chain of convenience stores, initially called “Tote’m Stores,” and later renamed 7-Eleven

6. Infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde are buried in different graveyards in Dallas. Their crime spree was immortalized in Arthur Penn’s Oscar-winning film Bonnie and Clyde, which shot some scenes in Dallas. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

7. Over the years, Texas has flown the flags of six different nations: Spain, Mexico, France, The Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States.

8. The amusement park chain Six Flags was founded in Arlington in 1961, and is named for the six flags of Texas. It was originally called Six Flags Over Texas. 

9. There may be some truth to the saying "Everything's bigger in Texas." Texas is home to the world's largest Honky Tonk (where Merle Haggard once purchased the world's largest round of drinks), votive candle, giant pilgrim head, and, of course, the world's largest Texan.

Brandi Korti, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

10. March 27, 1984, may have been the strangest weather day in Texas history. In Amarillo, the temperature was a near-freezing 35 degrees with snow on the ground, while Brownsville hit a high of 106 degrees. 

11. Bracken Cave in San Antonio is home to the world’s largest bat colony. From March through September each year, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats inhabit the cave and 1458 acres of the surrounding Texas Hill Country.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

12. The 1836 Battle of The Alamo, during which hundreds of Texan defenders were killed (including folk hero Davy Crockett), was one of the most important battles of the Texas Revolution, convincing others to join the Texas army, and inspiring the battle cry “Remember the Alamo.” The battle later became the subject of songs, books, and films—and today, the Alamo is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Texas.

13. Electronics company Texas Instruments was founded in Dallas in 1951. Probably best known for consumer electronics like calculators, the company is one of the top 20 semiconductor producers in the world. The movie True Stories (1986), set in the fictional Virgil, Texas, and directed by David Byrne of the band Talking Heads, is loosely inspired by the tech empire established by Texas Instruments.

14. Aurora, Texas, is home to a rumored alien gravesite. Some locals believe that in the 1800s, a UFO crashed in the area, and locals buried the “petite” Martian under a tree in a nearby cemetery. 

15. Sometimes called “the birthplace of Texas ranching,” the 825,000-acre King Ranch in South Texas covers more land than the entire state of Rhode Island. Established in 1853, the ranch encompasses operations as diverse as farming, cattle ranching, tourism, and even publishing. 

16. Paris, Texas, has its own 65-foot-tall Eiffel Tower. Built in 1995, it was originally billed as the “Second Largest Eiffel Tower in the Second Largest Paris.” In the years since then, fake Eiffel Tower construction in the U.S. has bumped the Texas tower down to fourth place. Still, it’s probably the only imitation Eiffel Tower in the world that sports a jaunty red cowboy hat.

17. Frequently used as a statement of Texas pride, the expression “Don’t Mess With Texas” started out as an anti-littering slogan. The phrase, which appears on T-shirts and bumper stickers throughout the state, has been a federally registered trademark of the Texas Department of Transportation since 1985. 

18. Forget Mount Rushmore, Texas has its own giant stone head—a 13-ton boulder carved into the shape of John Wayne’s face. Unlike the presidential monument in South Dakota, the John Wayne Boulder in Lubbock, Texas, sits inside the library of Lubbock Christian University.

19. Over the years, musicians and songwriters have written numerous odes to the state of Texas. Glen Campbell wrote an ode to Galveston, George Strait sang of his exes in Texas, and Waylon Jennings had a number one Billboard hit with “Luckenbach, Texas” in 1977. But the state’s most well-known ode may have come from Hollywood cowboy and Texas native Gene Autry. In 1942, the singing cowboy appeared in the film Heart of the Rio Grande where he sang “Deep In The Heart of Texas.” Since then the iconic song has been referenced in everything from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure to The Big Bang Theory.

20. Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson were college roommates at the University of Texas at Austin. The future director and the future movie star met their sophomore year and became fast friends. “I wrote a term paper for Owen,” Anderson told Texas Monthly in 1998. “Although that wasn’t exactly a collaborative effort.” The two went on to actually collaborate on Bottle Rocket (1996), Anderson’s first feature film, and have worked together numerous times since then.

21. The deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States occurred in Galveston on September 8, 1900, when a Category 4 hurricane hit the island city. Though residents knew a storm was coming, forecasters downplayed its severity and few evacuated, and an estimated 6000 people died. 

22. Drawing on the etymology of its name, the state motto of Texas is “Friendship.”

23. Black’s BBQ in Lockhart is the oldest family-owned BBQ restaurant in Texas. Owned and operated by the Black family since 1932, the restaurant is best known for its 80-year-old sausage recipe. Other beloved long-running Texas BBQ joints include Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, which opened in 1949 and is known for its beef brisket, and Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse in Elgin, which started as a sausage company in 1949. (PSA: You can order their sausages from anywhere in the United States).

Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

24. Texas was once an independent nation. Called the Republic of Texas, it was its own country from 1836 through 1845, when it agreed to be part of the United States. During that time, Sam Houston (for whom Houston, Texas, is named) was elected president twice, in 1836 and 1841. 

25. Lyndon B. Johnson and Dwight D. Eisenhower were both born in Texas. (Though both held government positions in Texas, George Bush and George W. Bush were born in Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively.) The LBJ Presidential Library is located in Austin. 

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Food
The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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